Buzz and heat

    Those of you who mourn our era of mediocrity and the degradation of popular culture should take a gander at this unholy trinity: Joe McGinniss, Sarah Palin, and Piers Morgan. They’re made for each other.McGinniss is the once-renowned journalist who beautifully exposed the artifice of political ads in The Selling of the President 1968 (and who introduced future Fox News chief Roger Ailes to the world) ; but now, in his newly-released tome on Palin, he basically shovels dreck. Palin, of course, was John McCain’s desperate Hail Mary pass, a former half-term governor with a knowledge-free zone between her ears. And as for Morgan, with his tacky British tabloid pedigree…suffice it to say that, as a broadcast interviewer, he will never match the brainy erudition of Edward R. Murrow. (Which may not matter anyway, since most living Americans probably can’t identify Edward R. Murrow.)They intersected Monday night on CNN, when Morgan hosted McGinniss for a chat about Palin. Let’s look at three key moments.1. The House.In Alaska, McGinniss lived for awhile in the house adjacent to the Palin family manse. He told Morgan that if he had passed up the opportunity to lease the house, “that would have been journalistic malpractice.”Morgan suggested that leasing the house was a breach of the Palins’ privacy; as he said to McGinniss, “Part of the family’s complaint is that you rented a property right next to theirs for months to do the book, and that you were kind of peering over the garden fence. That’s a bit creepy, isn’t it?”McGinniss replied, “There was no – to be peering over the fence? That would have been horribly creepy.”Morgan asked, “You never had a sneaky look?”McGinniss replied, “I never had any kind of a look.” He said he preferred to look at the lake.Morgan pressed, “Are you honestly telling me that for months on end, having rented the house next to the Palin family, you never once looked at the house? You were looking at a lake?”McGinniss replied, “I looked at the house above the fence, if I’m facing in that direction, but I had no interest in what was going on the other side…I gave (husband Todd) a blanket guarantee. I said I’ll never put in my book, or pass on to anyone else verbally, anything that I might happen accidentally to observe or overhear from (Todd’s) side of the fence. So (his) privacy is totally protected.”Oh, please. If McGinniss truly intended to protect the Palins’ privacy, why in his book does he provide detailed directions to the Palin house, along with a map? And it was hilarious to see Piers Morgan in high dudgeon about “creepy” behavior – given the fact that this is the same guy who once edited Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid, where he was infamous for his serial invasions of celebrities’ privacy.2. The “affair.”McGinniss writes in his book that Palin once slept with Todd’s business partner. Morgan, citing the tidbit, suggested that it was tacky to tag Palin as “a sex cheat.” The ensuing exchange may well have prompted the average viewer to take a shower.McGinniss said, “I didn’t use the word ‘sex cheat.’ Don’t attribute to me words that I didn’t write.”Morgan said, “But you accused her of cheating in a sexual way.””I mentioned that the National Enquirer had printed a story about an alleged affair that she had.””Do you think she had the affair?”I have no idea except what I read it in the National Enquirer, and – “”But, asked Morgan, “as a prestigious journalist, do you just willy-nilly repeat National Enquirer scoops even if you can’t substantiate them?””No, but I substantiated this.””So it is true?””…Yes, it is true.””So she was a sex cheat,” said Morgan.”She had an affair.””Is that the same as being a sex cheat?””That’s your terminology,” said McGinniss.”Is it or not?””She made a mistake.””She cheated sexually,” said Morgan.”If you want to say that.””I don’t want to say that. Did you say that in the book?”No, I didn’t.””You just said you did.””…No, I didn’t.”During this long semantic race to the bottom, could they have at least debated whether this alleged affair was relevant at all? Aside from the fact that McGinniss provides no sources or footnotes, does it really matter whether a former elected official strayed in her private life years ago? But a CNN host who made his bones with Murdoch would hardly be primed to ask such questions.3. The restaurant john.At another point, Morgan observed, “You said she had eating disorders.””No, I don’t.””Well, you allude to them.””No,” said McGinniss. “I describe one incident that was described to me where she came in after binging at a fast food restaurant, and went into the bathroom and came out 10 minutes later with her knuckles red and her eyes popping.””What was the implication you were trying to make?””It’s an inference that anybody can draw if they want to draw an inference.””What was the inference? You wrote the book.””I’m not asking anyone to draw any particular inference.””Of course you are.””No, I’m not.”Morgan kept trying: “Let me ask you then, in simple language that you feel comfortable, what was the inference you were trying to make us draw from that anecdote?””I wasn’t trying to make anyone draw any inference.”Bad journalism, folks. If McGinniss wasn’t trying to infer anything, then why bother using that anecdote in the first place? He even admits to Morgan that he didn’t find “any evidence” of eating disorders; this was just “one anecdote that was repeated to me.” Maybe Palin simply had a bad reaction to the fast food, which has been known to happen. Since that was a plausible explanation, why recycle the anecdote – and invite unsubstantiated inferences?Actually, the fact that Morgan, of all people, nailed McGinniss for that passage is proof of how far the author has fallen. It truly speaks ill of McGinniss that he was essentially fact-checked by a guy who was fired in 2004 by The Daily Mirror, another British tabloid, after he failed to vet the authenticity of photos that purportedly showed Iraqi prisoners being abused by British soldiers. He ran the photos, which turned out to be fake.So there you have it, a slice of life from the vacuous realm of buzz and heat, where sordid books about glitzy pseudo-celebrities fuel the pursuit of ratings and eyeballs. It’s enough to make you feel unclean. Somebody get me a squeegee.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal